Magazine article The Spectator

Are the Times a Changing for the Editor?

Magazine article The Spectator

Are the Times a Changing for the Editor?

Article excerpt

The air is thick with rumours that my old friend Peter Stothard, editor of the Times, is finally for the chop. One supposedly knowledgable source assured me last week that John Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times, is being lined up for the succession. On Monday the Guardian media diary informed readers that Mr Witherow had recently been seen hopping on Concorde, bound for New York, with the presumed intention of receiving his new seals of office from Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Times and the Sunday Times.

Fleet Street always yearns for the spectacle of an editor being sacked, particularly if that editor, like Mr Stothard, has enjoyed some success. But there are additional reasons for the frenzied speculation in this instance. Anyone can see that the Times, which more than doubled its circulation after cutting its price in September 1993, has run out of steam. I remember how two or three years ago some of my more jittery colleagues at the Daily Telegraph regarded Mr Stothard and his staff with the same sense of foreboding that Foreign Office strategists felt for Germany in the early years of this century. There was a belief that sooner or later the Times was bound to close the gap and eventually overtake the Telegraph.

No one would think that now. In recent months the Times has been losing a little ground to the Daily Telegraph. It is now marooned below 750,000 while its rival sits happily around 1,050,000. Quite a gap. Mr Murdoch's - and Mr Stothard's - ambitions of supremacy have been at least temporarily thwarted. The paper seems to have lost some of its energy, occasionally almost to the point of listlessness. Last Saturday, for example, it greatly underplayed the demonstrations in the City of London which many of its City readers would surely have wanted to read more about. And speaking of Saturdays, the Times on that day, edited by Mr Stothard's old chum Nicholas Wapshott, is pathetically weak. The magazine in particular is bursting with trashy, ill-written articles.

All this helps to explain why stories of Mr Stothard's imminent demise are so widely accepted. His contribution, which more than anything lay in arguing for a price cut, is judged to have run its course. There is no more scope on that front: even if Mr Murdoch were tempted by another bout of price cutting, he would probably be prevented from going ahead by a recent ruling of the Office of Fair Trading. (Of course, the paper still enjoys a price advantage, and at 30 pence undersells its three main broadsheet rivals by 15 pence.) Mr Stothard has left his mark, it is generally felt, and the time has come to let someone else have a shot. His day is over, and perhaps he should set aside the cares of editing and leave that fevered world to other men. The moment may have arrived when he should pick up again that once much-thumbed copy of Virgil, search in his wardrobe for that exotic, Kaftan-like garment he used to wear at Oxford, and head back to the banks of the Cherwell, where he passed his youth in bookish contemplation.

But actually there is no evidence that Mr Murdoch wants Mr Stothard to go. Let us take the Witherow story. I am told that Mr Witherow had hoped to see Mr Murdoch during the tycoon's most recent visit to London, but failed to do so. Having some editorial plans that require extra investment, he decided to go and see the great man in New York. Of course, they may well have talked about the Times and if they did so Mr Witherow would almost certainly not have said anything in praise of Mr Stothard, since the two men are not greatly enamoured of each other. …

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